Tish Murtha is an often overlooked figure of modern photography. Active predominantly during the Thatcherite era, her most prominent works are now on display at The Photographer’s Gallery in Soho in an exhibition of her 1978-1991 photographs. The exhibition is a journey through her development as an artist from the University of Wales, Newport where she studied Documentary Photography and shot her first serious series of images, to the more comfortable and experienced approach to her photography seen later in her career.
Murtha’s work focuses around social documentation, giving us an insight into working class and marginalised communities in the North-East (where Murtha herself grew up). Murtha’s photography offers a unique insight by someone who was on the inside of this community, having grown up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne amongst 9 other siblings in an Irish-originating, working-class family. Her familiarity with some of her subjects and personal experience of their conditions allowed for a close connection with the people in front of the lens, giving a raw and honest narrative for us, the viewers.
Her ‘Elswick Kids’ series (1978) juxtaposes the innocence and playfulness of childhood with the reality of the North-East of England in the late 1970s. Shot in the deprived area of Elswick in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Murtha’s stark black and white compositions depict a telling narrative of these children’s day to day lives spent playing within the streets of their neighbourhood.
At the exhibition, you can also see Murtha re-approach this concept a decade after in her ‘Elswick Revisited’ series. Shot between 1987-1991, the series approaches the same area at a time of rising racism within the UK. This was one of Murtha’s main focuses for these images along with the cultural diversity seen within the area.
Murtha’s London photography work is also on display. Following a move to London in 1982, she was commissioned by The Photographer’s Gallery for a group exhibition alongside famous photographers such as Bill Brandt capturing the lively soul of London at night. Murtha’s works focus around sex workers working in Soho during the 1980s. The images stand as a powerful critique of the sex industry at the time, telling a visual story of the women who worked in such jobs as well as capturing some of the men who frequented these places.
Tish Murtha’s work is interesting, personal and still relevant today. The exhibition is definitely worth checking out and all series mentioned above and more can currently be viewed at The Photographer’s Gallery.
Written by Charlotte Lockwood